Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chernow's Washington a fat, but fine biography

Book 92: Washington by Ron Chernow 

The writing is serviceable, the research impeccable and the portrayal of the man, who even in his lifetime was proclaimed "The Father of His Country," is balanced.

And its title is the smallest thing about Washington, Ron Chernow's biography of George Washington. This book is fat.

As these things go, it's not morbidly obese. There's 817 pages of text. With notes, bibliography, index and other addendum the entire book stretches to 904 pages. And it's a single volume, not three. 

Still, it felt as if it took as long just to read Chernow's lengthy section on Washington leadership during the Revolutionary War as it did for that first wrangle with the British to play out. (Nine years if you've forgotten your high school civics.)

In a brisk 294 pages, David McCullough gives us a lively -- and sufficient -- account of one critical year in the war in his 2005 history 1776.  James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn neatly summarize Washington's entire presidency in fewer than 160 pages in George Washington -- their entry in the uniformly stellar American Presidents Series by Times Books.

Such comparisons are not entirely fair, or apt.  Chernow is furnishing us with an updated biography of the entire life of Gen. George, while McCullough, Burns and Dunn are providing us with snapshots. Yet the problems inherent in such a lengthy work remain, and that is the author's tendency to include material that is extraneous and to be repetitive.

Do we really need to know in whose home George stayed during a certain winter of the war? Let me answer that -- it's on a need to know basis and no one needs to know.

Chernow tends to repeat certain points that he wants to make. He's like the proverbial Chicago voter who goes to the polls early and often. Themes that are repeated include Washington's bad teeth, his icy reserve that hides a violent temper and a sentimental streak, his flirtations that came up to the line but never crossed it (as far as we know, let it be understood: George liked the ladies) and George's profligate spending.  (He also liked nice stuff.)

On a positive note, Chernow, who also wrote a fine and fat biography of Alexander Hamilton in 2004, knows this cast of characters especially well.  He is adept at helping us understand the tempestuous relationships between George, Hamilton, John Adams, Jefferson and Madison.

He makes the political struggle between the Federalists and Republicans vivid and current, and neatly explains many of the heated issues of the day from Citizen Genet to Shay's Rebellion to Washington's distrust of political parties.

Chernow's Washington is a solid biography and a worthy read. It all comes down to a reader's willingness to devote a considerable chunk of time to one book.

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